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A friend asked me yesterday what’s been in the news. She had not been paying attention. Let’s see, I said. More killing in Syria, more guns flowing in so even more will be killed. Edward Snowden is holed up somewhere in Moscow while the U.S. and Russia argue about extradition. Mmmmm … The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act and Prop 8 and gay marriage.
Oh, and Paula Deen has been exposed as a racist.
I read the news later that night and admittedly spent more time following links on the Paula Deen public relations fiasco than on the real, consequential news of the world. I couldn’t deny the slight rush of pleasure I experienced over her public embarrassment. Not because I was convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that she was an insensitive racist redneck based on information leaked from a videotaped deposition first leaked by the National Enquirer. But because from the first day I heard her say, “Hey y’aaaaaaaaaallllllll,” on Food Network, I didn’t like her.
She offended me with her deep-fried cornpone folksiness — anyone from the South knows that there are ugly southern accents and pretty southern accents and a world in between, but that made-for-TV accent was made up, pure parody. When I looked at her spidery, mascara-caked fake eyelashes and her capped white teeth, I saw a woman in desperate search of a self image. I cringed at her interpretation of southern food, broadcast to the world at large as gospel to the great shame of serious home cooks all over the South.
Like many successful performers, Paula developed a schtick that appealed to the lowest common denominator. Include a stick of butter and a cup of sugar in every recipe, and every American who is pissed off about being told what they can’t eat will flock to you like pigs in a poke.
The woman was not to be believed. She pitched a recipe for Krispy Kreme bread pudding that included a can of sweetened condensed milk, two cans of fruit cocktail, undrained, and two-dozen glazed doughnuts, not to mention butter-rum sauce that called for a whole box of confectioners sugar. Just thinking about it makes my teeth ache.
The richer and more ubiquitous and louder and more extreme Paula became, the more I cringed. She was a disaster waiting to happen.
Food Network should have taken a clue 18 months ago when Paula finally announced, three years after her diagnosis, that she had Type 2 diabetes, the announcement coinciding with her signing a lucrative endorsement contract for the diabetes drug Victoza. In a public statement, teary-eyed Paula explained to television viewers that she had waited so long to reveal her condition because she just didn’t understand it. She didn’t know exactly what it meant. And now that she knew what it meant, would she use her public platform to urge healthier eating? Well, not exactly. Team Paula Deen came up with a canny plan that would have her sons take on that role while she remained the queen of saturated fat, at least on the air.
Paula Deen is the perfect embodiment of having your cake and eating it too.
She may well be a racist and not know it, and maybe she’s not but just has a nasty habit of sticking her foot in her mouth or being rude. Maybe she treated employees badly in the past or maybe some of them are just mad that she got richer than God and they didn’t. Maybe I don’t like her public persona because I believe it is made up and insincere and maybe I don’t like it because I’m a snob who doesn’t like that it is so obscenely profitable while in such bad taste.
When all is said and done, Paula Deen will have lost a few celebrity endorsement contracts but she will still be a household name with legions of loyal fans. Why, I hear there will soon be a Paula Deen Museum in Albany, Georgia, her hometown, and I’m sure the team is busy cooking up plans for expansion into new arenas after this latest fiasco. Maybe a new show on cable TV, “Paula Does Soul Food,” with celebrity guests like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who will attest to her good, redeemed character.
If all else fails, there’s an irresistible trinket for sale on her web site that should skyrocket in sales in coming weeks — a shiny, rhinestone encrusted ‘Hey Y’all!’ keychain. At $19.95, it’s a real steal.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.